EQO Communications, a savvy bunch of telecom guys out of Vancouver BC, today announced the launch of EQO (pronounced echo) Mobile, a mobile-phone-based VoIP, SMS, and IM service that, initially, will be available in 20 countries in North America, Europe, and the Middle East.
CEO Bill Tam paid VoIPplanet.com a visit last week and explained: "We set out to meet an unfulfilled need in the marketplace: to make mobile calling affordable around the world." (As our conversation unfolded, it also became clear that the other part of EQO's goal was to make it simple, but we'll get back to that.)
Price-conscious international callers have a number of alternatives today, Tam observed. "Some just wait 'till they get home and use low, fixed-line rates. Some use calling card or call-back services [like Jajah]. Some use Skype or another PC-based service."
But sometimes they just have to bite the bullet and pay for a mobile call, Tam said. "With fixed-line international calling, prices have normalizedlargely due to influence of IP," he pointed out"but with mobile, charges of $1 of $2 per minute are not uncommon." EQO Out pricing starts at $0.023 per minute.
What you get
In terms of services, EQO gives you pretty much what Skype and Gizmo Project give you in the PC-based VoIP worldfree calling, presence information, and instant messaging between registered users, supplemented by low cost calling out to the PSTNplus SMS messaging.
But the key here is that these services are coming to you on your own, standard-issue mobile phone. High-end phones, broadband connectivity, computer connections are not required. All these communications functions are available to you anywhere you can get a signal from your mobile provider.
|EQO Mobile's phonebook interface|
How it works
To sign up for EQO, you go to the website, click the Sign Up button, go through a three-step registration process (choose an ID and password, identify your phone and mobile provider, and the like), and EQO sends its software client directly your phone.
"To keep it simple, we designed the client around a few main requirements," Tam explained.
The fundamental design choice was to make the application work like a phonebook. "You typically just scroll down the list of contacts, you see the person you want, you click, and you call," he said. As a starting point, on most phones, the EQO software will invite you to import the contacts in your phone's SIM, so you don't have to rebuild that list.
"Second, it should take advantage of capabilities you already have in your possessionsuch as the phone you already have and the services you already get from your carriers. No need for fork-lift upgrades."
"Finally, it needs to deliver more than voicegiven the growth of text messaging and other kinds of messaging," Tam explained, pointing out that not only does the EQO app support every major IM network and allow you to store as many personal identities as you like, it provides SMS messaging as well.
|EQO supports all popular IM services|
Under the hood
The secret sauce in EQO Mobile is that, for the first leg of the call, it isn't a VoIP call at all, it's a circuit-switched cellular call. If this sounds a bit bizarre, stay with me here, it does make sense.
EQO uses the SMS or data channel for signaling (call setup), using a simplified, lightweight version of SIP. It actually feeds your phone a local number to connect it to EQO's backbone. As a result, the cellular technology native to the phone and mobile network is doing the heavy lifting, eliminating the need for additional radios, protocols, processing power, etc. The phone is just doing what it was designed to do.
Once the call reaches the EQO VoIP backbone it can be routed like any other VoIP call, and terminated anywhere in the worldas a local call.
This strategy has several benefits, according to Tam. "It allows us to fit on the vast majority of phones." (See this list of over 400 supported handsets.) "We dont need special codecs; we use the cellular codecs that are already on the phone. And it allows the client to be very compact," he said.
"It also provides some assurance of sound quality. You're making a circuit-switched voice call carried over a VoIP backbone, which means your quality is going to be very close to a normal cellular call."
As of today, EQO Mobile is available in Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Ireland, Israel, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the U.K., and the U.S. EQO will be working throughout the second half of this year to address Asian countries as well.